Mentorship 101: The myths, truths, and intricacies of mentorship

In Summary

•A good mentor does not create clones of himself or herself.

• A mentor helps the mentee by sharing experience, lessons

Elishibah Msengeti Poriot.
Elishibah Msengeti Poriot.
Image: WOMEN WORK

One of the most effective ways of growing in one’s career and personal life is through mentorship. I recall one time when I was in a leadership position and I could not figure out why my meetings with the team were mostly one-way conversations that felt like I was dishing out instructions instead of leading discussions. I met up with one of my mentors who also happens to be a seasoned coach and as we had lunch at a restaurant, I explained to her the challenge that I was having.

She asked me how long in advance I usually shared the meeting agendas. When I told her, she opened my eyes to what I was doing wrong; I was sending the agenda too close to the meeting so there was no time for people to think about what they would want to contribute. She also taught me to go through the list of invitees and ask myself how the meeting would add value to each person. This helped to reduce the number of meetings that required ‘everyone’ and instead we started to have more effective, efficient, focused, and participatory meetings where everyone contributed and added value to the discussions. This is only one example where a mentor taught me the ropes and all it took was one conversation, a willingness to be vulnerable on my part, and on her part, a willingness to share her knowledge.

This indeed is what mentorship entails: - Trust, Respect, the Generosity to teach, and most of all, a Willingness to learn.    

A good mentor can be a determining factor of success, they can boost your confidence and help you to avoid pitfalls. Oprah Winfrey said, “A mentor is someone who allows you to see the hope inside yourself. “ Yet, it is not easy to approach a mentor and often we ask ourselves, “Where do I even begin?” This article will give you a clearer notion of what mentorship is, what it is not, why you need it, and how it works. We do this by debunking a few myths about mentorship.

Demystifying the Myths of Mentorship

The mentor must be older or more senior than the mentee.

A mentor can be younger or more junior than their mentee; they just have to be more experienced in a certain domain. In whatever roles we hold, we should be willing to have reverse mentors, these are people who are younger than us in age but may for instance be better versed in something such as digital marketing, communication, etc. Jeanne Meister, a founding partner of Future Workplace says, “You may need a mentor when the environment around you is changing rapidly and you have not had a chance to keep up well with the changes.” In the era of the Covid pandemic, many people had to turn to younger counterparts for guidance on the use of various communication media such as Zoom, Google Meet, and so on. Peer mentorship is also very powerful where peers mentor each other and this is often another missed opportunity. Do you have peers that you admire and that you could learn a thing or two from? Instead of having a competitive relationship, or wondering just how they ‘do it, why not try peer mentorship? The results will be a win-win and you will find that you too have something to offer in one area or another.

Mentoring has to be done over a ‘mentoring session’ where one declares that mentorship is happening.

Mentorship can happen organically during a game of basketball, a project done together like fixing a machine, gardening, cooking, or even taking a walk. Most of the best mentorship takes place during such activities where the mentee and mentor can talk freely without necessarily declaring that they are now ‘having a mentorship session.’

A mentoring relationship has to be for a lifetime.

It can be daunting to think that you need to remain in a mentorship relationship for life, as that could feel like choosing a life partner! Indeed, mentorship is supposed to be for a set period, often six months to a year, and should have specific goals and an end date when the relationship can be renewed or ended. There are, of course, mentors that walk with you for life, but the most effective mentorship is based on specific goals. You could have check-ins and follow-ups later but as you enter a mentorship relationship, it is good to have an end date in mind.

Mentorship is all about the mentor giving and the mentee receiving.

Mentorship is a give and take, and is based on mutual trust, respect, and openness. As you approach a mentor, don't think that you have nothing to offer. Your passion and ambition are in themselves an inspiration to the mentor and as he/she teaches you, they also learn and grow. For many successful leaders, mentorship is actually very fulfilling and they derive joy from having someone to share their ideas and lessons with. A good mentor will have the wisdom to learn from their mentee and the humility to acknowledge and appreciate the symbiotic relationship.

A mentor needs to mentor you in all aspects of your life.

Kathy Kram, author of ‘Mentoring at Work’ says, “Mentors are that handful of people you can go to for advice and who you trust to have your best interests in mind. This network can be as large or as small as you want. Sometimes it can be helpful to get a variety of perspectives on an issue you are facing.” We need more than one mentor because one cannot be good in all things. You can have a career mentor and one for your education, another to mentor your relationship/marriage life, another to guide you in business, one for your spiritual life, and yet another for your mental health. The more you diversify your mentors, the more you can learn and derive from each one in the area that they are most experienced in.

Mentoring is for young people, for people who are not successful, or those who have not yet ‘made it' in life.

 “We used to think it was people in early stages of their career who needed mentoring. Now we understand that people at every stage benefit from this kind of assistance,” writes Kathy Kram. Mentorship is necessary throughout one’s life at every stage because indeed our process of ‘becoming’ is continuous. The most high-performing people are those that seek continuous mentorship and recognize that learning is infinite. The more successful you become, the more you should actively seek coaching, mentorship, and other guidance to help you soar to greater heights.

A mentor can serve as your counselor and therapist.

Unless they have counseling expertise, you should not expect your mentor to automatically play the role of a counselor or therapist. A mentor could listen, encourage and guide from his/her own experiences of life, but for proper guidance and therapy, it is best to seek the services of mental health workers such as a counseling psychologist, a psychiatrist, a counselor, or a life coach.

Mentors are people who have expertise in mentoring and have to wear a ‘Mentor’ badge.

Your parents, siblings, relatives, teachers, friends, religious leaders, or sports coaches can also be your mentors. We often miss the opportunities to be guided because we place these relationships in one strict box and fail to seize teaching and learning moments. We can and should seek mentorship from the people in our lives, they are our wealth. I have benefitted a lot from mentorship by my mother, aunties, uncles, my mother’s friends, my peers, in-laws, and even cousins. The duality of the relationship can be a complicating factor, but it can also be a strength because these are people who know you well and understand your background, personality, and context.

A role model is the same as a mentor.

People often confuse the two terms. A role model is someone you admire for something that they have achieved or the way they behave, but you might never meet them. It is possible to approach a role model to become your mentor if they are accessible to you, however, your role models are not automatically your mentors. A mentor is someone with whom you have a continuous relationship and one who walks with you for a period of time.

Lastly, there is an expectation that mentoring leads to instant results or to become as successful as one’s mentor.

A good mentor does not create clones of himself or herself, but one who enables the mentee to be the best version of themselves. In the words of Bob Proctor, “A mentor is someone who sees more talent and ability within you than you see in yourself, and helps bring it out of you.” A mentor helps the mentee by sharing experience, lessons and providing access to resources and networks that the mentee can tap into. However, it should not be assumed that you will automatically become as successful as, or exactly similar, to your mentor; you have to think independently, find your path, and put in the hard work required to get you to where you need to go.

Elishibah Msengeti Poriot is the Founder of The Classroom Outside, a Leadership, Mentorship, and Life Skills Training organization. She can be reached at [email protected]

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